- Author: MaryJo Smith
Saturday was Day One of the Great Tomato Plant Sale in Walnut Creek. Tomato lovers, young and not-as-young, formed a line that snaked around the corner and down the street as they waited for the sale to begin. The garden was abuzz with activity as CCMG volunteers set up the tents and tables, did plant inspections, and found their stations. The help desk tent was ready to answer questions about tomatoes, gardening, or the Master Gardeners' programs; the garden guides were ready to help with location and selection of tomatoes and other veggies; the expeditors were posted at the end of the garden to guide the customers through the checkout process; and the cashiers and CI's were at the registers to ring up the purchases.
The gates opened promptly at 10:00 am. Customers, with lists in hand, focused on finding the tomatoes they had carefully selected from the myriad of varieties offered, for their gardens this year. For the next two hours, there was a frenzy of tomato buying. There were flats, there were bags, there were bins, there were carts, and there were wagons. It was amazing. I manned one of the cash registers and by the third hour, I think I had rung up over 900 plants. The seven other cashiers were also ringing up about the same amount. The pace continued, with only a few lulls when many of the attendees stopped to listen to Our Garden's Janet Miller, give presentations on growing tomatoes and other veggies. It was a great turnout!
Even after selling so many plants, believe it or not, we still have lots of inventory at both locations and they are definitely not “left-overs.” While we sold out of a few varieties, we still have over 3,500 tomato plants at Our Garden. And, we've set aside 3,000 plants for the upcoming West County sale.
So, if you missed the first day of the GTPS, don't despair – Our Garden will have plants -- tomatoes (of course!), peppers, various other veggies and herbs, beans, and even some flowers -- available this Wednesday and upcoming Saturday, and West County will have its very own sale on Saturday as well. CCMG volunteers will be on hand to help you out.
Come check it out!
By Liz Rottger
First discovered in the Andes more than two thousand years ago, the tomato was cultivated extensively by the Aztecs where it grew like weeds, year-round. Spanish explorers first took tomatoes to Europe in the sixteenth century. Initially, it was thought to be poisonous because it was a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), famous for its toxins. Early on, tomatoes were used only as table decorations. Italians were the first to discover the tomato's culinary prowess and introduce it into their cuisine. The earliest cookbook with tomato recipes was published in 1692 in Naples. Once it caught on, it spread across Europe and adapted again and again to the climate and soil of that specific region.
Tomatoes come in a dazzling spectrum of colors; belying that aphorism that ‘red' is synonymous with ‘tomato.' Colors range from black, purple, pink, green, orange, and even white to every shade of red imaginable. There are also spectacularly beautiful striped tomatoes like the striking Big Rainbow with its neon-red striping throughout its rich yellow flesh or Chocolate Stripes with its dark shoulders draped over a deep red. Each color has its own unique taste. Some are sweet and fruity; others have rich, complex flavors, acidic and tangy.
Today, there are literally hundreds of varieties of tomatoes whose names like Aunt Ruby's German Green, Black Sea Man, Caspian Pink, Nebraska Wedding, or Black Krim attest to their place of origin. There are tiny, bite-size cherries, colossal, one-to-two pound Hawaiian Pineapples, plum-shaped San Marzanos grown for tomato sauce and the beautiful, perfectly round Japanese heirloom, Mandarin Cross.
The word “heirloom” is difficult to define, but nurserymen have used it for decades to indicate varieties of plants and trees, which have a well-known and established provenance and breed true. Heirloom tomato varieties are by definition open-pollinated and their seeds can be collected from one year to the next with the same characteristics as the parent plant.
Many tomato varieties have been preserved for generations by home gardeners from their family gardens (Mortgage Lifter, Brandywine, San Marzano, etc.). Each year, they carefully selected and saved their most flavorful fruits in order to plant their seeds again the following spring. Some of these tomato varieties were even brought to America in a form of reverse-migration by immigrant families (Czech Bush, Azoychka, Eva Purple Ball, the Russian “Blacks,” etc.). Saving tomato seeds has preserved the genetic diversity of tomatoes.
There is no doubt that the tomato is the undisputed queen of the summer garden and nothing tastes better than homegrown!
PS. The Great Tomato Plant Sale is happening now! April 4th at Walnut Creek Our Garden and April 11th at Richmond - come find your new favorite tomato.
This year, I decided to volunteer to help propagate tomato seedlings for the CCMG Great Tomato Sale. It's our biggest annual fundraiser. I've never propagated seeds before, but I thought it would be a fun way to earn some volunteer hours.
Upon arriving at Our Garden in Walnut Creek, I received instructions about: (1) the structure of the soil flats we would be planting, (2) the number of seeds to plant per row, (3) how deep to plant each seed, and (4) how to immediately place the identification markers to avoid confusion over varieties. My assigned tomato was "Black from Tula". It was fun to take a flat full of soil and draw a thin line for placing the seeds (about an inch apart in 5-6 long rows). It was also nice to hear from other volunteers what seeds they were propagating this year and what success they had with other varieties planted in previous years. When completed, the flats were recorded and placed in the greenhouse and gently watered.
More to come in the next several weeks . . .
Dear Diary: I'm back! Its been two weeks since the seedlings were planted, and I returned to help move the sprouted seedlings into their new home – each one gets a 4 x 4 inch plastic pot with its own label! It was tough to separate some of the closely rooted seedlings, but with gentle encouragement, teasing, and promises of greatness, they saw the light! A place of their own! I'm so excited! The sprouted seedlings were planted deep down below their cotyledon leaf and then gently watered in the greenhouse. Done for now. Back in two weeks.
Dear Diary: It's hard to believe another two weeks have passed. I am back to help with more transplanting - this time I was working with "Bloody Butcher". This tomato variety is quite large and has a long root system; so long, in fact, that it was recommended that we slightly bend up the roots in order to fit them in the new pots. Later in the day, I counted labels we removed from seedling pots that did not make it. "Wisconsin 55" was the worst with the most seedling failures. As a Milwaukee native, I took it little personally and was a bit disappointed.
Overall, Diary, this has been a great experience. I got to see former classmates and catch up, I learned the proper way to plant seeds and handle their resultant seedlings, and I especially enjoyed the community feeling while working in the garden. It was not only educational, but it was fun too!
How Do You Decide in Only Five Minutes?
With nearly sixty heirloom tomato varieties in this year's Contra Costa Master Gardeners Great Tomato Plant Sale, where do you start? With so many one-of-a-kind heirloom tomatoes to choose from, how do you decide which variety to buy?
First, you need to decide which variety will grow well in your location. Do you live in cooler location in West Contra Costa? Or, in hot, dry East County? Do you have limited space and want to grow tomatoes that grow well in containers? Are you intrigued by some of the new varieties we are offering this year? Or, are you a dyed in-the-wool traditionalist and just want those large, juicy beefsteaks? Or, maybe you're a pasta fan and want a freezer-full of homemade pasta sauce next winter.
For a successful tomato plant that will produce lots of wonderful fruits throughout the season you need to think first about where you are planting it. Choose a variety that fits with your micro-climate and space requirements. Here are some varieties that fit the two major climate types in Contra Costa.;
For our Cooler Climes Buyers:
- Legend—blight-resistant, well- adapted to cooler climes, it will be the earliest-maturing slicer in your garden.
- Gold Nugget—developed at OSU–where else for cooler climes?—these ¾” golden cherries will mature in only 60 days, continue from early season ‘til frost and have a rich, sweet flavor.
- Sophie's Choice—in 65 days this slicer tomato is one of the earliest bearing varieties and produces large, flavorful fruits. It actually doesn't like heat.
- Stupice—a very cold-tolerant, disease-resistant and early tomato with delicious, 3-4 oz. fruits in clusters.
For Hot, Dry Climate Buyers, here are some varieties that need lots of heat:
- Boxcar Willie—10-to-16 oz. tomatoes with a rich, sweet flavor and just a touch of acid for tanginess.
- Hawaiian Pineapple—the name says it all, these large, yellow, 1-pound tomatoes are sweet and fruity.
- Kellogg's Breakfast—a classic, large orange beefsteak tomato weighing up to one pound.
- San Marzano Gigante—a prolific, classic pasta tomato with enormous, meaty fruits.
Now, there are other considerations when buying tomatoes. You'll want to think about what you want out of your tomato plant. Do you want a rich pasta sauce or a slicer for delicious BLTs or a ton of small cherries for the grandkids? To make your job a bit easier, we've made up a few shopping lists for different kinds of buyers: traditionalist, canning and sauce cooks, the avant-garde buyer and the gardener with little or no space. Here they are:
Traditionalist Buyers, here are some of our trusted and much-loved stand-bys:
- Bloody Butcher—with a name like that, you better be sensational and it is! High-yielding, dark red and delicious!
- Brandywine Pink—one of American Classics, some consider the best tasting tomato ever.
- Cherokee Purple—Pre-1890's heirloom with a delicious, old-timey flavor.
- Isis Candy—gorgeous bi-color cherry in heavy clusters, one of our personal favorites.
- Mortgage Lifter— the legendary large (1-2 pounds!), tasty beefsteak on very productive, disease-resistant plants.
- Sungold—positively luscious, apricot-orange cherries borne on beautiful, 15” long trusses. A visual eye-candy that you can actually eat in your garden!
- Amish Paste—one of the largest sauce tomatoes, excellent flavor and tolerates cooler climes.
- Opalka—a single tomato can make an entire rich tomato sauce, so meaty is its flesh.
- Pompeii—very productive Italian plum tomato with rich, meaty flesh.
- San Marzano—the most famous Italian sauce tomato with a thick, dry, almost seedless flesh.
For avant-garde Buyers looking for a new variety, here are some of the “New in 2015” varieties:
- Baylor Paste—so abundant that you'll have a tough time just keeping up with picking this delicious paste tomato.
- Czech's Bush—masses of 4-8 oz. fruit clusters, coming on early and bearing long.
- Sun Sugar—fruity-tasting orange cherry tomatoes which produce in beautiful clusters on vigorous vines.
- Pomodoro Canestrino di Lucca—direct from Italy a classic pasta tomato that is also great in salads.
For our Buyers with a postage-stamp size yards, here are some varieties that you can squeeze in any sunny spot:
- Lizzano—ideal for hanging baskets and containers, a cherry with a non-stop harvest of 1” fruits, perfect for snacks and salads.
- Nebraska Wedding—the best thing to come out of Nebraska since Dick Cavett, these 3-4” slicers are juicy with a well-balanced flavor.
- Red Robin—a lovely dwarf cherry that can even be grown indoors on a sunny windowsill.
- Superbush—bred specifically for small spaces, this tomato still has a big, old-fashioned tomato flavor.
Still having a hard time deciding? So many possibilities! Well, we'll have lots of knowledgeable Master Gardeners all-day at all of our Great Tomato Plant Sales to help you with your selections. We want to make sure that you take home tomato plants that will thrive in your garden and will also meet your personal preferences. There's literally something for everyone. For your convenience, we also have online shopping lists for you to mark up and bring to the Sale.
Visit our website at http://ccmg.ucanr.edu/EdibleGardening/GreatTomatoPlantSale/.
See you at the Sale!